The ever-versatile combi-oven is once again stepping up to the plate as restaurateurs adapt to running operations during the pandemic. For several years, the combi-oven has been an integral part of many kitchen operations, thanks to its versatility, ease of use and efficiency. But, these days, chefs are discovering even more reasons to leverage the intelligence and capabilities of these all-around workhorses, from reduced staffing and space restrictions, to menu changes and kitchen formats.
One major issue influencing today’s operations is the shortage of labour and skills in kitchens, many of which are running at skeleton-staff levels. “Combi-ovens really allow for the entire production to be plug and play. They take out the guesswork for chefs,” says Louis-Philippe Audette, president of RATIONAL Canada. Many operators are pivoting to combi-ovens at a time when dining-rooms are closed and they’re converting to takeout, reducing their menus and consolidating functions where they can, he says. “Combi-ovens not only help reduce waste, they allow chefs to work hands-free while taking care of other business.”
They can also be monitored and operated remotely, Audette adds. “It helps to have that fluidity. When you have staff pressed for time, you want to maximize how much you can get out of a cooking device. It helps streamline production, because you can cook several items together and set times for each.”
“One-chef kitchens can run a larger operation with less staff and rely on the equipment to make everything more efficient and profitable,” says Steve Meehan, corporate chef, Food Service Solutions Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.
April Shaw, VP of Blodgett Combi Sales and Marketing in Essex Junction, V.T., observes that many operators are streamlining their menus because they don’t have a lot of staff in the kitchen and are getting back to their core profitable products. “Combi-ovens are faster and don’t require micro-management, so chefs can do something else while the oven does the producing. That’s a huge
portion of what’s going on today.”
QUALITY AND QUANTITY IN ONE
The cost savings can also add up when operations are running on shoestring budgets, says Mark McEwan, executive chef at Food Service Solutions. “With combi’s, not only can you produce high-quality food without a highly trained person to execute it, you can get up to a 20-per-cent higher yield on meat cuts versus convection.”
Another key factor is consistency. By improving and creating systems around food, restaurateurs can cook with more consistency and less prep, he adds. “Someone can call in sick and you can still achieve the same quality on a regular basis.”
With staffing at a minimum, an added bonus is that a combi-oven cabinet can accommodate multiple items at the same time, ensuring a consistent product every time with less skilled staff. “There’s so much programming you can do,” Meehan says.
WHERE THE COMBI’S ARE
As a result of the pandemic, the restaurant industry has experienced a rise in commissary/ghost kitchens. Owners of multiple restaurants are following the QSR trend of transitioning to remote kitchens to prepare food for transfer to the different locations.
“Ghost kitchens are something we’re seeing a lot more of,” McEwan says. “Whereas it was typically takeout pizza or Chinese-food operations, now everyone is doing it to reduce the high overhead of brick and mortar so they don’t have to worry about location.”
A combi-oven can do the work of a fryer, grill, convection oven and steamer in a smaller footprint. “Instead of six or seven pieces, now you might have one or two,” he says. “The icon-based screen is the same interface you find on a cellphone or tablet, so the learning curve is much easier and the training much faster. You could take high-school kids and a combi-oven and create a pop-up ghost kitchen to create an efficient takeout model.”
Ventless systems have also come to the forefront in these scenarios. “Ghost kitchens are the biggest new market sector right now. You can put them anywhere and create a modular-style kitchen with ventless combi ovens,” Shaw says.
An added benefit is that the modularity of a ventless system allows kitchens to separate production areas to address sanitation and physical-distancing challenges, she says. “Ventless plays a huge part in that.”
Combi-ovens are also selling more into supermarkets, QSRs and other restaurants trying to optimize operations, Meehan says. “Healthcare facilities are really jumping on board. We see a lot of growth in that area because the one good thing about combi technology is it automatically logs all HACCP data. It knows the temperature of every minute in the cooking process and constantly
monitors that it is in the safe zone. That’s a huge benefit.”
A CASE IN POINT
Stephen Clark, executive chef at Chop steakhouse in Calgary, has long been a fan of combi-ovens for its prep-hall operation. Now he’s bringing them to the cooklines. The chain just completed a renovation in Halifax and is opening a new Saskatoon location in November. “Both of those kitchens rely heavily on combi technology,” he says.
It all started a year-and-a-half ago with a renovation in Richmond, B.C. He saw an opportunity to use combi-ovens to reduce their kitchen size and increase dining-room capacity. “We replaced a good chunk of equipment on our cookline with RATIONAL ovens. We still have a deep fryer and Montague [Harvard, Calif.] broiler, but everything else is done with the combi-oven. With the consistency and speed of those ovens, we knew it wouldn’t take long for people to learn how to make food.”
The timing was ideal, given the onset of the pandemic, because they could let the combi ovens take the place of an extra person. “In a busy kitchen we usually have two people running the station. The RATIONALs with timers are the extra person now.”
They’ve also played a key role in Chop’s takeout strategy “That’s where combi-ovens really help because one person can manage two stations. And we don’t find ourselves burning anything because it was forgotten. That’s been the biggest win for us. Even if there’s only one skilled person working three lines, it almost feels like they have a couple of friends with them.”
The Halifax location is the smallest kitchen they’ve built to date. Part of that is due to having the combi-ovens, he says. It boasts one double unit for prep during off-peak times and another two that serve as sauté stations for appetizers. The overall investment was $75,000 all in.
“Between the space we saved and the equipment we didn’t buy, we came out pretty close to even. That’s the cool part. We’re in the process of trying to quantify the ROI so we can convert other existing properties. This is not the time to be spending money we don’t need to. All of us really have to make sure we know what we’re doing first.”
Economics aside, his favourite feature is the programming. “What I like most is the intelligent level controls. That’s where the magic happens.”
Written by Denise Deveau